Baby Driver: Although it contains more music than most tuneful of movies “Baby Driver,” the new film from director Edgar Wright, isn’t a musical in the “West Side Story,” “Sound of Music” sense. Wallpapered with 35 rock ‘n roll songs on the soundtrack it’s a hard driving heist flick that can best be called an action musical.
The Big Sick: Even when “The Big Sick” is making jokes about terrorism and the “X-Files” it is all heart, a crowd-pleaser that still feels personal and intimate.
Call Me By Your Name: This is a movie of small details that speak to larger truths. Director Luca Guadagnino keeps the story simple relying on the minutiae to add depth and beauty to the story. The idyllic countryside, the quaint town, the music of the Psychedelic Furs and the languid pace of a long Italian summer combine to create the sensual backdrop against which the romance between the two blossoms. Guadagnino’s camera captures it all, avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama to present a story that is pure emotion. It feels real and raw, haunted by the ghosts of loves gone by.
Darkest Hour: This is a historical drama with all the trappings of “Masterpiece Theatre.” You can expect photography, costumes and period details are sumptuous. What you may not expect is the light-hearted tone of much of the goings on. While this isn’t “Carry On Churchill,” it has a lighter touch that might be expected. Gary Oldman, not an actor known for his comedic flourishes, embraces the sly humour. When Churchill becomes Prime Minister his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) makes an impassioned speech about the importance of the work he is about to take on. He raises a glass and, cutting through the emotion of the moment, says, “Here’s to not buggering it up!” It shows a side of Churchill not often revealed in wartime biopics.
The Disaster Artist: The key to pulling off “The Disaster Artist” is not recreating “The Room” beat for beat, although they do that, it’s actually about treating Wiseau as a person and not an object of fun. He’s an outrageous character and Franco commits to it 100 per cent. From the marble-mouthed speech pattern that’s part Valley Girl and part Beaker from The Muppets to the wild clothes and stringy hair, he’s equal parts creepy and lovable but underneath his bravado are real human frailties. Depending on your point of view he’s either delusional or aspirational but in Franco’s hands he’s never also never less than memorable. It’s a broad, strange performance but it may also be one of the actor’s best.
Dunkirk: This is an intense movie but it is not an overly emotional one. The cumulative effect of the vivid images and sounds will stir the soul but despite great performances the movie doesn’t necessarily make you feel for one character or another. Instead its strength is in how it displays the overwhelming sense of scope of the Dunkirk mission. With 400,000 men on the ground with more in the air and at sea, the sheer scope of the operation overpowers individuality, turning the focus on the collective. Director Christopher Nolan’s sweeping camera takes it all in, epic and intimate moments alike.
The Florida Project: This is, hands down, one of the best films of the year. Low-budget and naturalistic, it packs more punch than any superhero. Director Sean Baker defies expectations. He’s made a film about kids for adults that finds joy in rocky places. What could have been a bleak experience or an earnest message movie is brought to vivid life by characters that feel real. It’s a story about poverty that neither celebrates or condemns its characters. Mooney’s exploits are entertaining and yet an air of jeopardy hangs heavy over every minute of the movie. Baker knows that Halley and Moonie’s well being hangs by a thread but he also understands they exist in the real world and never allows their story to fall into cliché.
Get Out: This is the weirdest and most original mainstream psychodrama to come along since “The Babadook.” The basic premise harkens back to the Sidney Poitier’s classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” In that film parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, have their attitudes challenged when their daughter introduces them to her African American fiancé. The uncomfortable situation of meeting in-laws for the first time is universal. It’s the added layers of paranoia and skewered white liberalism that propels the main character’s (Daniel Kaluuya) situation into full-fledged horror. In this setting he is the other, the stranger and as his anxiety grows the social commentary regarding attitudes about race in America grows sharper and more focussed.
Lady Bird: Greta Gerwig’s skilful handling of the story of Lady Bird’s busy senior year works not just because it’s unvarnished and honest in its look at becoming an adult but also, in a large degree, to Saoirse Ronan’s performance. I have long called her ‘Lil Meryl. She’s an actor of unusual depth, a young person (born in 1994) with an old soul. Lady Bird is almost crushed by the weight of uncertainty that greets her with every turn—will her parents divorce, will there be money for school, will Kyle be the boy of her dreams, will she ever make enough cash to repay her parents for her upbringing?—but Ronan keeps her nimble, sidestepping teen ennui with a complicated mix of snappy one liners, hard earned wisdom and a well of emotion. It’s tremendous, Academy Award worthy work.
The Post: Steven Spielberg film is a fist-pump-in-the-air look at the integrity and importance of a free press. It’s a little heavy-handed but these are heavy-handed times. Director Spielberg and stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are entertainers first and foremost, and they do entertain here, but they also shine a light on a historical era whose reverberations are being felt today stronger than ever.
The Shape of Water: A dreamy slice of pure cinema. Director Guillermo del Toro uses the stark Cold War as a canvas to draw warm and vivid portraits of his characters. It’s a beautiful creature feature ripe with romance, thrills and, above all, empathy for everyone. This is the kind of movie that reminds us of why we fell in love with movies in the first place.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: The story of a mother’s unconventional war with the world is simple enough, it’s the complexity of the characters that elevates the it to the level of great art.
Wonder Woman: Equal parts Amazon sword and sandal epic, mad scientist flick, war movie and rom com, it’s a crowd pleaser that places the popular character front and centre. As played by Gal Gadot, Diana is charismatic and kick ass, a superhero who is both truly super and heroic. Like Superman she is firmly on the side of good, not a tortured soul à la Batman. Naïve to the ways of the world, she runs headfirst into trouble. Whether she’s throwing a German tank across a battlefield, defying gravity to leap to the top of a bell tower, tolerating Trevor’s occasional mansplaining or deflecting bullets with her indestructible Bracelets of Submission, she proves in scene after scene to be both a formidable warrior and a genuine, profoundly empathic character.
CHIPs: It’s a remake, a comedy and an action film and yet it doesn’t quite measure up to any of those descriptors. It’s a remake in the sense that writer-director-star Dax Shepard has lifted the title, character names and general situation from the classic TV show but they are simply pegs to hang his crude jokes on.
The Circle: While it is a pleasure to see Bill Paxton in his last big screen performance, “The Circle” often feels like an Exposition-A-Thon, a message in search of a story.
The Fate of the Furious: Preposterous is not a word most filmmakers would like to have applied to their work but in the case of the “Fast and Furious” franchise I think it is what they are going for. Somewhere along the way the down-‘n’-dirty car chase flicks veered from sublimely silly to simply silly. “The Fate of the Furious” is fast, furious but it’s not much fun. It’s an unholy mash-up of James Bond and the Marvel Universe, a movie bogged down by outrageous stunts and too many characters. Someone really should tell Vin Diesel and Company that more is not always more.
Fifty Shades Darker: Depending on your point of view “Fifty Shades of Grey” either made you want to gag or want to wear a gag. It’s a softcore look at hardcore BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) that spanked the competition on its opening weekend in 2015. Question is, will audiences still care about Grey’s proclivities and Ana’s misgivings or is it time to use our collective safeword? “Fifty Shades Darker” is a cold shower of a movie. “It’s all wrong,” Ana says at one point. “All of this is wrong.” Truer words have never been spoken.
The Mountain Between Us: Mountain survival movies usually end up with someone eating someone else to stay alive. “The Mountain Between Us” features the usual mountain survival tropes—there’s a plane crash, a showdown with a cougar and broken bones—but luckily for fans of stars Idris Elba and Kate Winslet cannibalism is not on the menu. Days pass and then weeks pass and soon they begin their trek to safety. “Where are we going?” she asks. “We’re alive,” he says. “That’s where were going.” There will be no spoilers here but I will say the crash and story of survival changes them in ways that couldn’t imagine… but ways the audience will see coming 100 miles away. It’s all a bit silly—three weeks in and unwashed they still are a fetching couple—but at least there’s no cannibalism and no, they don’t eat the dog.
The Mummy: As a horror film it’s a meh action film. As an action film it’s little more than a formulaic excuse to trot out some brand names in the kind of film Hollywood mistakenly thinks is a crowd pleaser.
The Shack: Bad things in life may be God’s will but I lay the blame for this bad movie directly on the shoulders of director Stuart Hazeldine who infuses this story with all the depth and insight of a “Davey and Goliath” cartoon.
The Snowman: We’ve seen this Nordic Noir before and better. Mix a curious lack of Oslo accents—the real mystery here is why these Norwegians speak as though they just graduated RADA—Val Kilmer in a Razzie worthy performance and you’re left with a movie that left me as cold as the snowman‘s grin.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Movies like the high gloss crime thriller “La Femme Nikita,” the assassin mentor flick “Léon: The Professional” and outré sci fi opera “The Fifth Element” have come to define director Luc Besson’s outrageous style. Kinetic blasts of energy, his films are turbo charged fantasies that make eyeballs dance even if they don’t always engage the brain. His latest, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” not only has one of the longest titles of the year but is also one of the most over-the-top, retina-frying movies of the year. Your eyes will beg for mercy.
Wonder Wheel: At the beginning of the film Mickey (Justin Timberlake) warns us that what we are about to see will be filtered through his playwright’s point of view. Keeping that promise, writer, director Woody Allen uses every amount of artifice at his disposal—including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s admittedly sumptuous photography—to create a film that is not only unreal but also unpleasant. “Oh God,” Ginny (Kate Winslet) cries out at one point. “Spare me the bad drama.” Amen to that.
Song to Song: I think it’s time Terrence Malick and I called it quits. I used to look forward to his infrequent visits. Sure, sometimes he was a little obtuse and over stayed his welcome, but more often than not he was alluringly enigmatic. Then he started coming around more often and, well, maybe the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt is true. In “Song to Song” there’s a quick shot of a tattoo that sums up my feelings toward my relationship with Malick. Written in flowery script, the words “Empty Promises” fill the screen, reminding us of the promise of the director’s early work and amplifying the disappointment we feel today. This is the straw that broke the camel’s back, the Terrence Malick movie that put me off Terrence Malick movies. I’ll be nice though and say, it’s not him, it’s me.
mother!: Your interest in seeing “mother!,” the psychological thriller from “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky, may be judged on your keenness to watch American sweetheart Jenifer Lawrence flush a beating heart down a toilet. Aronofsky’s story of uninvited guests disrupting the serene lives of a poet and his wife refuses to cater to audience expectations. “mother!” is an uncomfortable watch, an off-kilter experience that revels in its own madness. As the weight of the weirdness and religious symbolism begins to feel crushing, you may wonder what the hell is going on. Are these people guilty of being the worst houseguests ever or is there something bigger, something biblical going on?
Aronofsky is generous with the biblical allusions—the house is a paradise, the stranger’s sons are clearly echoes of Cain and Abel, and there is a long sequence that can only be described as the Home-style Revelation—and builds toward a crescendo of wild action that has to be seen to be believed, but his characters are ciphers. Charismatic and appealing to a member, they feel like puppets in the director’s apocalyptic roadshow rather than characters we care about. Visually and thematically he doesn’t push button so much as he pokes the audience daring them to take the trip with him, it’s just too bad we didn’t have better company for the journey.
“mother!” is a deliberately opaque movie. Like looking into a self-reflective mirror you will take away whatever you put into it. The only thing sure about it is that it is most confounding studio movie of the year.